In November 2016, a then-anonymous social media account called Sleeping Giants (I'm a co-founder) began an unusual campaign: tweeting at brands whose ads were appearing on Breitbart.
Each tweet featured a screenshot of the ad sitting next to outrageous headlines, such as "Birth Control Makes Women Unattractive and Crazy" and "Political Correctness Protects Muslim Rape Culture," and each tweet carried a variation of the same message: "Hey, do you know your ad is supporting racism and bigotry online?"
A few weeks into the campaign, on Nov. 30, Kellogg's announced it would be blacklisting Breitbart from its ad buy. That was a tipping point both for brands and for social-media-savvy consumers.
It was the start of something big
The Sleeping Giants campaign snowballed virtually overnight as hundreds, then thousands, of followers joined. Tweeting screenshots is easy—and, obviously, no brand wants to be caught alongside racist, misogynist, or white-supremacist rhetoric.
Today, with the support of 300,000 Giants across Twitter and Facebook, over 4,000 advertisers have blacklisted Breitbart. (The official Confirmed List is public.) The results are tangible: Breitbart has lost 90% of its advertisers.
In the process of the Sleeping Giants campaign, a scandal of epic proportions in the advertising world was uncovered: We discovered that Google AdSense and Facebook Audience Network were programmatically serving ads on sites with racist, misogynist, or white-supremacist rhetoric.
Most marketing teams have discovered their problematic programmatic ad placements through disappointed customers who were taking part in social media campaigns.
For example, HR recruitment software company Workable learned through a Sleeping Giants tweet that its ad was sitting above this Breitbart headline: "There's No Hiring Bias Against Women in Tech, They Just Suck At Interviews."
For some, the discovery has made international headlines: In March 2017, the British government learned that ads placed by several of its agencies—using taxpayer money—were appearing alongside (and therefore, funding) extremists and hate preachers on YouTube.
With its growth, the movement has held advertisers responsible beyond Breitbart. Our campaign was started as, and remains, an effort to make bigotry and sexism less profitable—and that means we're now watching a lot more than just ads, and we have led or played a pivotal role in various efforts:
- Bill O'Reilly lost his show over his history of sexual harassment.
- Renaissance Tech CEO and racist financier Robert Mercer was forced to step down after clients were made aware of Mercer's financing of Breitbart, Steve Bannon, Milo Yiannopoulos, and Cambridge Analytica.
- Laura Ingraham lost over half her advertisers after mocking David Hogg, a Parkland shooting survivor, for not getting into college, and after making multiple references to "demographic changes," parroting white-supremacist talking points.
- Milo Yiannopoulos lost his book deal with Simon & Schuster after his pro-pedophilia comments surfaced online.
- Alex Jones was deplatformed by Apple, Facebook, Twitter, Spotify, and YouTube.
Brand safety is a lot harder in 2019: What you need to do next
Today, brand safety has been totally redefined by consumers. Businesses need to look more broadly than at just ad and media buys to keep their brands safe. Your usage policies, partnerships and even political campaign contributions are now in play too.
Got a Diversity Page on your website? How about corporate social responsibility (CSR)? If you have values and initiatives such as those at your company, they are the perfect places to start your review to document where your company stands on real-life issues.
The following five areas have landed companies in hot water in 2019. Do you know where your business would stand?
1. Acceptable-Use Policies
How will your business respond to bad actors using your platform or service? Who gets to be your customer?
- Disqus, the comment hosting service, has continued to host violent hate speech in Breitbart's comments section despite its anti-harassment policy.
- Payment processing service Stripe is processing online payments for violent white supremacist groups.
- Shopify, despite its anti-hate speech policy, is hosting Breitbart's online store.
2. Clients and Client Projects
Whom will you contract with or perform services for? What is and isn't it OK to profit from?
- Salesforce, Microsoft, and Accenture came under fire from both the public and their own employees for enabling family separation on the US border through multimillion-dollar contracts with Customs & Border Protection.
- United and Delta had to answer for their role in flying asylum-seeking children away from their parents.
Whom and what will you align and associate yourself with?
For example: Delta, Enterprise, and Hertz all dropped their partner discount for National Rifle Association members following the Parkland High School student-led #BoycottNRA campaign.
Whom and what will you invest your money into? Where will those funds be funneled?
For example: Michigan State University found itself under fire for investing its endowment funds with Renaissance Technologies and therefore contributing to Robert Mercer's shadowy antidemocratic efforts.
5. Political Campaign Contributions
What people or policies will your campaign contribution money support?
For example: Walmart, Pfizer, and Major League Baseball were among the businesses called out for donating to Mississippi State Senator Cindy Hyde Smith and Iowa Congressman Steve King, both of whom have a long history of racist and white-supremacist rhetoric.
It's up to you
It's ultimately up to your business to decide what the right decisions are for your brand.
These are tough questions, and in the age of social media they come at you fast.
Now is the time to take stock of what your customers value and come up with clear, consistent policies that protect your brand's value. You don't want to be scrambling when customers come knocking on your door. It's worth being prepared.
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